Film and Society

Bedtime for Bonzo’s Behaviorist Bent

February 07, 2011

Multiple Pages
Bedtime for Bonzo’s Behaviorist Bent

To celebrate Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, I watched his most derided movie, Bedtime for Bonzo. We’ve been hearing wisecracks about it for generations, so it has to be an embarrassment, right?

Bedtime for Bonzo turns out instead to be a small but nifty family comedy that was a deserved hit in 1951. The writers were disappointed that they couldn’t land Cary Grant for the role of a scientist who tries raising a chimpanzee as if it were a human baby. But it was indeed a Cary Grant-worthy idea. The following year, Grant (aided by Marilyn Monroe, director Howard Hawks, screenwriter Ben Hecht, and Esther the Chimp) portrayed a chemist testing youth elixirs on apes in Monkey Business.

Still, Reagan was well suited to play an idealistic and impersonal professor in Bedtime for Bonzo. But it’s funny how liberal Reagan’s character is—a progressive psychologist who believes in nurture over nature. Reagan proclaims that criminals are merely victims of having been “born and raised in a slum environment.”

The script has a surprisingly intellectual underpinning because one of Bonzo’s writers, Raphael Blau, had been a graduate student in educational psychology and animal behavior under Edward L. Thorndike at Columbia. Bedtime for Bonzo sides with behaviorist psychologists such as B. F. Skinner, who were then ascendant over the old-fashioned Darwinian hereditarians.

“Tragically, young Bonzo died in a fire three weeks after his only film’s premiere, leaving him the James Dean of monkey movies.”

The premise is clever, especially compared to recent science-based comedies such as Human Nature, the incoherent 2001 flop penned by the normally brilliant Charlie Kaufman. Bedtime for Bonzo was inspired by the (inevitably comic) experiments of earnest psychologists such as Winthrop Kellogg and Catherine Hayes, who tried in the 1930s and 40s to raise baby chimps in their homes to see how human they would turn out.

Thus, Reagan is engaged to a lady professor who is the daughter of the college’s dean, an old-fogey geneticist who still believes in heredity. When the dean discovers that his prospective son-in-law’s estranged father was a habitual conman, he withdraws his daughter’s hand and asks: “But what assurance do I have that your children, my grandchildren, won’t inherit criminal tendencies?”

Reagan then has a brainstorm: He’ll borrow a baby chimp from the college’s Viennese animal researcher and raise it like a human child to prove that “environment is all important” and “heredity counts for very little.”

The ideological irony is funny enough, but the really funny thing about Bedtime for Bonzo is Bonzo. That little monkey is a riot!

There’s a standard joke that Reagan gets out-acted by an ape, but there’s no shame in underplaying in the presence of such an extraordinary scene-stealer. Screenwriter Ted Berkman explained that Bonzo was trained to respond “promptly to some 502 instructions—or, as a passing director sourly observed, ‘about 500 more than a lot of human actors.’” Director Fred de Cordova supposedly stopped giving instructions to Bonzo’s trainer and simply explained directly to the ape how to play each scene. The director couldn’t afford to use a lot of cuts, which merely makes Bonzo’s performance even more amazing as de Cordova just lets the film roll.

Tragically, young Bonzo died in a fire three weeks after his only film’s premiere, leaving him the James Dean of monkey movies. (Of course, with chimps, the older they get, the cuter they ain’t. One day he’s a cuddly ball of fur doing backflips, the next he’s ripping your face off.)

In the 1980s, liberals constantly denounced Reagan as a terrible actor who was fooling the public with his acting genius. On the other hand, Reagan often struck his conservative supporters as worrisomely old-looking.

In contrast to the uncannily unchanging Cary Grant, Reagan’s most obvious weakness as a leading man was that his rather fleshy face aged at the normal rate for a human being. In Bonzo, he looks like what he was, a handsome 40-year-old man, not the perpetual 35-year-old that audiences want as their male stars. Reagan’s Hollywood career wound up a little like the short baseball career of slugger Hank Greenberg, also born in 1911. Both lost crucial years to the Army during WWII.

Johnny Carson made endless Bedtime for Bonzo gags, in part because de Cordova, the Tonight Show’s legendary producer, had directed it. De Cordova became the inspiration for perhaps the most stupendous supporting character in the annals of sitcoms, Rip Torn’s Artie, the producer on The Larry Sanders Show. Artie protects his star like a showbiz samurai. But it’s fun to wonder who was the top banana on de Cordova’s 1951 set—the president or the primate?


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